Syrian ‘terrorism’ and U.S. retrenchment

How can we expect the international community to sympathize with the Syrian revolution when terrorists are active on the ground?

Eyad Abu Shakra
Eyad Abu Shakra
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When I finally listened to the statements made by Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mokdad in Geneva, in which he rejected any talk of President Bashar al-Assad stepping down, I felt frustrated and tense. My reaction was not in response to Mokdad or the Syrian government delegation at Geneva, but rather it was in response to the international community following an absurd and bloody path by pursuing a “political settlement” to the Syrian crisis. This comes after those who claimed to be “combatting terrorism” had succeeded in confusing the entire scenario.

What Mokdad said, and the tone in which he said it, likely came as no surprise to those familiar with his political history. It is nothing new to hear similar statements from his colleagues; political and media adviser to the president, Bouthaina Shaaban, Minister of Information Omran al-Zoubi and the rest of the gang, particularly with regard to the issue of the government “combatting terrorism.” What is new, however, and what has provoked surprise in many quarters, is the U.S. media reports about the al-Nusra Front—one of the extremist jihadist factions fighting Assad’s tyranny—and the direct and indirect role that Iran is playing in supporting and sponsoring this group. The reports claimed that this was taking place via two figures based out of Iran known by their noms de guerre, Jaafar al-Uzbeki and Yassin al-Suri.

It is true that reports such as this cannot be treated as conclusive evidence and, in fact, a number of figures sympathetic to the al-Nusra Front have rushed to deny these claims, denouncing them as an “American conspiracy” to undermine the Front and serve the interests of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They say that ISIS has now been exposed as a fifth column fighting against the popular Syrian revolution, seeking to destroy its reputation. This is based on claims that the government’s air force has been reluctant to target areas and bases under ISIS control, while civilians and “real” revolutionaries are being bombarded by barrel bombs day and night.

Emotional expressions of this kind are understandable, and in some cases there are mitigating circumstances that can lead one to form the wrong impression. However, from a logical standpoint, such claims are difficult to justify.

It is true that ISIS has now been exposed as a result of its atrocious and suspicious transgressions. This has affected all other factions of the Syrian revolution, particularly the Islamic Front and what remains of the Free Syrian Army. However, it is also true that the al-Nusra Front publicly pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda, following which al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri explicitly announced his support for the group in the Syrian conflict, including its conflict against ISIS.

How can anybody expect the international community to sympathize with the Syrian revolution when a terrorist organization such as al-Qaeda is one of the uprising’s most prominent participants?

Eyad Abu Shakra

The al-Nusra Front does not deny this, and to this day it has not backed away from this relationship with al-Qaeda. At the same time, Zawahiri has also not shied away from confirming al-Qaeda’s relations with the Front.

Accordingly, how can anybody with even the slightest sense expect the international community—which is always in a state of fleeing its moral, humanitarian and political responsibilities—to sympathize with the Syrian revolution when a terrorist organization such as al-Qaeda is one of the uprising’s most prominent participants? How can any statesman face Russia’s new czar, Vladimir Putin, when this is the bitter reality on the ground? In this case, groups such as ISIS—and perhaps the al-Nusra Front—are serving as a “fig leaf” to cover up the sins of Putin and his ilk. This includes their neo-imperialistic policies, which are stoking the flames of religious and sectarian fanaticism and conflict. It is all part of an open war against what they describe as “takfirist” and “jihadist” groups.

Despite this, the information that has been revealed to us about the support being granted by the Syrian regime, the Iranian regime, and their Iraqi allies—and perhaps also Russian intelligence agencies bringing in “jihadist” groups from Central Asia and the Caucasus—constitutes just one side of the Syrian crisis. The other side of that crisis is purely an American one.

A thoughtful article

Earlier this week, the New York Times published a thoughtful article by Columbia University Professor and Council on Foreign Relations Fellow Dr. Stephen Sestanovich. In his article, Sestanovich, who worked for the U.S. State Department during the administration of former U.S. president Ronald Reagan, objectively criticized the policy of “retrenchment,” which he said has become the core of U.S. President Barack Obama’s strategy in his second term in office.

That was a long article, which included an academic look at similar cases of retrenchment by former U.S. presidents following costly wars or political and military adventures, affirming that this always leads to a change in the U.S. electoral mood.

Sestanovich said that former U.S. presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush “found it hard to manage a downsized strategy, [and] Mr. Obama should expect the same. He won’t abandon retrenchment, nor does he need to. The domestic foundations of American power do need shoring up. But he needs to tend to its international foundations as well.”

He adds: “The president and his advisers sometimes do the opposite. When they say they want to pay less attention to the Middle East, they undermine the president’s own top goals: a nuclear deal with Iran and an Israeli–Palestinian settlement. These may be achievable only if allies and adversaries foresee a more active American role in the region.”

Such talk addresses the “gap” in Obama’s policies. If a strategic expert who specializes in national security and the former Soviet Union views this as a political “gap” based on new “priorities,” then this is nothing short of a “disaster” for those affected by Washington’s Middle East policies, whether in terms of its preemptive wars or its retreat from the region.

From this, some may understand the U.S.’s feelings towards violence, even if the Americans have committed mistakes in dealing with the region’s problems.

Dictating U.S. policies

However, this is not the crux of the matter, particularly as nobody can dictate U.S. policies. In this case, it is important to take two factors into account.

First, politicians who come to power based on moral or ethical slogans, such as Obama, are more likely to be held to account over them. What is clear today, even to a large number of supporters and fans of President Obama, is that his actual policies on the ground are not in line with his ethical and idealistic orations.

Second, throughout its modern history as a superpower, the U.S.’s political considerations have always been based on one constant, namely “expense.” Based on this, we are not expecting any change in Washington until the U.S. electorate is convinced that the policies being pursued by the president have become too expensive.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Feb. 15, 2014.


Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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